It was an attack on the epicenter of America's war planning. Soon after, America began planning for war. In effect, there were two Pentagons on the day of the attack. One, a chaotic scene of ambulances, firetrucks, and white-sheeted corpses. The other a calm picture of steely resolve as the generals met in the building's inner core and prepared to respond with ferocity. The military rhetoric built slowly during the 24 hours after the attack, culminating in President Bush's statement committing the nation to a "monumental struggle of good vs. evil."
Now, as Americans come to terms with a one-day death toll that could be much greater than Pearl Harbor, the country's military apparatus must figure out how to fight a kind of war it has never fought before. One of the Pentagon's first moves illustrates the huge gap between fighting conventional wars and fighting terrorists: The Navy sent two $5 billion aircraft carriers to the waters off New York—both of them powerless to roll back the carnage there, or even avenge it.
For all the experts in the U.S. government, a band of terrorists from the world's poorest nations has managed to stay one step ahead. It was able to attack the USS Cole last October because the Navy was focused primarily on pierside threats, not those in open waters. And the astounding attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon succeeded because, once again, America's best minds failed to anticipate such a "brilliant" scheme, as one terrorism analyst put it. Nevertheless, U.S. News has learned that in the past year the Pentagon did run a drill simulating a plane crash in the building's center court, in order to determine the best response to the disaster. "The drill probably saved hundreds of lives, if not more," says a security analyst familiar with the drill. "Everyone on site knew how to react logistically, if not emotionally."
With 100 or more of their own people killed in the attack on the Pentagon, the nation's military minds could not be more motivated to conquer what President Bush called "a different enemy than we have ever faced." If the objective is to capture or kill master terrorist Osama bin Laden, the Pentagon "has the target packages all ready," says a former Pentagon official. "They know where his locations are." But bin Laden has proved himself crafty, perhaps moving around recently in countries like Yemen. And the 1999 war over Kosovo and the 1998 missile strikes against Afghanistan demonstrated that airstrikes against something as big as whole military units may not be effective. The extraordinary killing may well justify a ground campaign to get bin Laden. Yet some military experts contend that simply capturing or killing him won't be enough, that nothing less than a war on bin Laden's network and other terrorist organizations around the world will prevent future terrorism on American soil. "I believe that if all we do is go after bin Laden, we will have accomplished very little in the long term," says John Warden, a former Air Force colonel who designed the air campaign during the Gulf War.
Ground troops? Bush's statement that the attacks were "acts of war" suggests that a ground operation inside Afghanistan—if not elsewhere—is indeed possible. And there are U.S. units trained for precisely such missions. Special operations units such as Operational Detachment Delta—"Delta Force"—may already be swinging into action. "If they've got the intel, I'd be highly surprised if they weren't going after him," says a retired general. Military resistance inside Afghanistan would be relatively minimal.
Support is likely also to come from outside the United States. For the first time, NATO is prepared to invoke its mutual defense clause—a provision of its charter that declares that an attack on one NATO nation is an attack on all—rais- ing the prospect of full NATO retaliation. "It's incredible that our allies would stand up and be counted," says one source close to the discussions. "Whatever the U.S. response, we have at least 18 others willing to join a military coalition."
Getting to landlocked Afghanistan would require support from Pakistan, which controls the air and ground routes from the Indian Ocean, where U.S. Navy ships would likely stage. Or, the United States could simply force its way in. That might have been unthinkable before, but "the rules have changed," says Butch Neal, former assistant commandant of the Marine Corps. Those rules could include a number of factors that until now have restrained U.S. military action. Concern about civilian deaths led the Pentagon to take some targets off the strike list for the 1998 missile attacks meant to avenge attacks on U.S. Embassies in Kenya and Tanzania and had a dramatic effect on target selection during the Kosovo War. Bin Laden reportedly surrounds himself with family members and other "innocents," a tactic favored by Saddam Hussein as well. Bush and his aides must now decide whether to disregard concern about harm to noncombatants. One strategist sees the 1986 bombing raids against Libya—which included attacks on the power grid and other parts of the infrastructure—as a precedent for much more massive retaliation for the September 11 attacks. "These are monumental decisions," says Neal. "But these are monumental events."